As I opened my eyes, I saw the delicate pink cherry blossoms in full bloom outlined against a clear blue sky. Green leaves accented the perfect flowers, and the whole scene was bright with springtime energy. A little too bright, actually. The pink was a little more fuschia than it should have been, and the green a tad too neon. It lacked the delicacy of a real tree in bloom. I had tried to doze off to no avail. I was getting an MRI scan for a slightly broken ankle, and on the ceiling of the MRI room, right above the scanner, was a backlit scene of artificial springtime serenity, put there in an attempt to relax nervous patients like myself.
Despite the fake Kodachrome-bright scene, whoever had made the decision to put the picture there had the right idea. Nature does soothe us in times of stress.
I found this out last week when my mother was hospitalized. She spent time in two different rooms, and I was profoundly struck by the contrast between the two. In both rooms, she had the bed near the window. But that’s where the similarity ended.
In the first room, the window looked out on the roof of a lower section of the building. Massive metal air conditioner compressors, and the brick of the other section of the building were the only features immediately visible. If I really strained and stretched, I might catch a glimpse of an inch or so of sky, but other than that, the view was strictly artificial. And depressing.
The second room wasn’t much better in terms of space, wallpaper, furniture, and the like. But this time, the window looked out away from the building. The branches of a single oak tree dominated the view. In March, those branches were bare but for a few dead leaves that lingered on from last fall.
I immediately noticed how soothing it was simply to look out the window of the second room. I could see the dead leaves quiver in the breeze, and watch the outlines of birds flying in the distant sky. Maybe a squirrel lived in that tree. Or maybe not. It didn’t matter. The tree alone was enough.
One single March-bare oak tree was enough to allow me to connect with the natural world. Looking out that window, I could meditate on deep roots, stretching branches, sap flowing, and new buds awakening. It was a touchstone to the rhythms and seasons of that particular place, to the land itself. It was real in a way that the eternal spring cherry blossoms in the MRI room couldn’t be. It was connected to Earth’s deep time story in a way that the brick and metal view would never be.
For a brief time, sitting quietly in my mother’s room while she slept, I experienced relationship with that tree, in the “I-Thou” sense that theologian Martin Buber so famously described.
In the midst of all the frantic pace of our lives, and especially in times of crisis, we need to ground ourselves and connect with the natural world. When we do, we can enter a state of peacefulness and calm in the midst of the chaos. It is possible. It doesn’t take much.
A single tree can be enough.
Photo Credit: flickr user CarbonNYC at www.creativecommons.org